How to Hammam
Mon 9 Jan 2012
The massage room at the Mosquée de Paris.
Taking a steam at a hammam, or Turkish-style bathhouse, is all the rage in Paris—and has been for a number of years. More of them seem to be opening each month. I’ve tried O’Kari, La Mosquée de Paris and Les Bains du Marais, and I have enjoyed each of these hammams in Paris for different reasons. Recently I spent a delightful afternoon at O’Kari, which is for women only. It’s a small hammam, but it does the trick.
Many women go to a hammam in twos, with a friend, which is fine if you are comfortable getting naked with a girlfriend, but it can be awkward, depending on how open you are and how at ease you are with your body. This is not an activity for the extremely shy or insecure, because you’ll spend most of your time completely nude, with the exception of a small paper thong that covers most but not all the critical parts. Word to the wise: be sure to put the thong on with the larger side forward. This is obvious to those who wear thong-style panties, but as I was in a rush to put mine on in the dressing room, I committed the embarrassing error of putting it on backward, which I discovered too late. Horrors!
Photo: Courtesy O'Kari.
The method goes like this: first, you get assigned a locker, where you place all your belongings and put on the aforementioned panties and a robe. Then you are ushered into the steam rooms and the gommage area. You spend some time first in the very hot hammam, which is like a steam room, only hotter, and with rounded ceilings. There is normally a source of water where you can splash your face, hands and feet when you get too hot. You are meant to go in and out of the hammam, and then rest in the anteroom, which is not as warm.
By this time, you are robeless, so you’ll be sitting around with other ladies completely (or nearly) exposed. Luckily it’s steamy and fairly dark. Eventually one of the attendants comes to get you, then spreads savon noir (black soap) all over you, and you enter the hammam again. Next it’s time for your gommage. This is a fierce scrub down that you’ll get while lying on a stone table. You are scrubbed within an inch of your life, but after you get used to it, it is actually quite enjoyable in an aggressive, scratch-that-itch kind of way. The terribly sensitive need not apply. Your attendant, bless her, washes all the dead skin and soap off you, then applies yet another soap to really wash you down, after which there’s more scrubbing. Then the attendants wash your hair and massage your face, neck and back. This entire process takes about 45 minutes and leaves you with skin that feels like that of a newborn baby.
Photo: Courtesy O'Kari.
I had elected to add on a massage with oil. But first I was instructed to enjoy a cool Jacuzzi while an attendant brought me a drink made of fleur d’orange, water and ice, topped off with a slice of fresh orange. A terribly refreshing virgin cocktail after all the heat, steam and scrubbing. Aah . . . I was feeling quite relaxed by this point and no longer felt as worried about parading around in my birthday suit.
Some women also elected for a facial, but after the Jacuzzi I carried on with a massage in a room that was blissfully quiet save for North African music. The massage was not the best I’ve ever had, but it was still good and furthered my relaxed state. Afterward, while wrapped safely in my robe, I enjoyed a cup of mint tea and some Moroccan pastries in a lounge, and helped myself to a magazine.
Photo: Courtesy Les Bains du Marais.
A week of triping around Paris can be exhausting, but spending two hours alone or with a friend at a hammam can completely destress you, and return you to a state in which you’re ready to tackle Paris a new. Each hammam I tried has its own unique appeal. The Mosquée de Paris, built in the 1920s, is by far the most beautiful and the cheapest, but the atmosphere in the massage room can leave you feeling a bit like a piece of meat at a bazaar, with all the masseuses talking to one another in Arabic. But this hammam is huge, there are many different steam rooms that you can go in and out of and the architecture is stunning. Unlike at O’Kari, here there is no one to usher you around, so navigating can be guesswork for a first timer, and there are no small paper panties, only small washcloths. We elected to leave our underwear on, but most others did not. Les Bains du Marais is more posh than the other two, but the hammam is pretty small. I really liked that there are lounge chairs in which you can lie around and relax after the heat of the hammam. The massage I had here was definitely the best of the lot.
I encourage you to try a hammam on your next visit. You’ll walk away cleaner than you’ve ever been and completely refreshed.
Note: The Mosquée de Paris also has a tearoom, a dining area for couscous or tagine and a gift shop full of North African treasures, all of which you can enjoy with or without the hammam.
La Mosquée de Paris
Hours for women: Mon, Wed, Thurs and Sat, 10 a.m.–9 p.m.; Fri, 2 p.m.–9 p.m.
Les Bains du Marais
Editor’s note: The O’Kari hammam will give GG2P Travel Club members a discount when booking with the spa. Learn more about the Travel Club, and read about O’Kari’s partner details.